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Oral Cancer and Tobacco

Oral Cancer and Tobacco

What is the link between tobacco and oral cancer?

Tobacco use is known as a major risk factor for oral and other cancers. All tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and snuff, contain toxins (poisonous substances), carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), and nicotine (an addictive substance). Each tobacco product is linked to an increased risk for specific cancers:

Cigarettes

Cigarettes, the most common form of tobacco used, cause 90% of all lung cancer deaths, according to the American Lung Association. In addition, about 80% of people with oral cancers use tobacco. Cigarettes contain more than 60 cancer-causing agents.

Cigars and pipes

Cigars and pipes are often perceived as the less harmful way to smoke tobacco. However, even when not inhaling, cigar and pipe smokers are at increased risk for cancer of the oral cavity and lungs. Pipe smokers also are at increased risk for lip cancers in areas where the pipestem rests. In addition, cigars take longer to burn and contain more tobacco than cigarettes, increasing the amount of secondhand smoke exposure.

Cigar smoking can also lead to tooth loss, jaw bone loss, and other periodontal diseases.

Chewing tobacco and snuff

Spit tobacco, also known as chewing tobacco and snuff, are forms of tobacco that are put between the cheek and gum. Chewing tobacco can be in the form of leaf tobacco (which is packaged in pouches), or plug tobacco (which are packaged in "brick" form). Snuff is a powdered form of tobacco, usually sold in cans. The nicotine is released from the tobacco as the user "chews."

Although chewing tobacco and snuff are considered "smokeless" tobacco products, harmful chemicals including nicotine are ingested. More than 28 cancer-causing chemicals have been found in smokeless tobacco.

Chewing tobacco and snuff can cause cancer in the cheek, gums, and lips. Like a pipe, cancer often occurs where the tobacco is held in the mouth. Cancer caused by "smokeless" tobacco often begins as leukoplakia (a condition characterized by a whitish patch that develops inside the mouth or throat) or erythroplakia (a condition characterized by a red, raised patch that develops inside the mouth). Other problems associated with chewing tobacco and snuff include periodontal disease, tooth discoloration, and bad breath, among others.

How do cigarettes and cigars compare?

Cigars became a trend in the 1990s, attracting the young and the old. Although perceived as less detrimental to one's health, cigars actually pose the same risk as cigarettes for oral cancer. Although many cigar smokers do not inhale, the risk for oral, throat, and esophageal cancers is the same as for cigarette smokers. Consider these facts:

  • Compared with nonsmokers, regular cigar smokers are 4 to 10 times more likely to die from oral cancer, esophageal cancer, and laryngeal cancer.

  • Cigar smokers may spend an hour or more smoking 1 large cigar that can contain the same amount of nicotine as a full pack of cigarettes. Furthermore, even unlit cigars, when held in the mouth for an extended period of time, promote nicotine absorption.

  • Secondhand smoke from cigars contain toxins and cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) similar to secondhand cigarette smoke, but in higher concentrations.

How can people stop their use of tobacco products?

The American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association offer the following tips to people who use tobacco products and are trying to quit:

  • Think about why you want to quit.

  • Pick a stress-free time to quit.

  • Ask for support and encouragement from family, friends, and colleagues.

  • Start doing some exercise or activity each day to relieve stress and improve your health.

  • Get plenty of rest and eat a well-balanced diet.

  • Join a stop-smoking program, or other support group.

  • Talk with your doctor about medications that may help you quit. 

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